Sports
6:00 am
Thu June 12, 2014

World Cup Forces Real Salt Lake To Play On Without Star Players

Three members of Real Salt Lake will be participating in the 2014 World Cup that kicks off this afternoon in Brazil. But while they’re representing their country on the world’s biggest soccer stage, the rest of Real Salt Lake will continue to play games without them. It's a situation that is a unique problem for America's premier soccer league.

Playing Shorthanded

Here at American First Field in Sandy members of the Real Salt Lake soccer team scrimmage as they prepare for a U.S. Open Cup game they’ll play this Saturday in Atlanta. Missing from the field are goalkeeper Nick Rimando, midfielder and captain Kyle Beckerman, and leading goal scorer Àlvaro Saborìo. They’ve been gone from the team since May 14 when they left for pre-World Cup training camps. RSL head coach Jeff Cassar admits their absence has had a huge impact on their team.

“Whenever you’re losing your captain and really, the spine of our, you know, forward, defensive midfielder, goalkeeper, you’re losing a lot of leadership. You’re losing a lot of experience.”

He says their loss doesn’t stop there. It also has a ripple effect on the entire roster.

“Then you’re starting people who typically haven’t started, right, but then you’re bringing in after that, typically players that haven’t been playing very much at all and now they’re having much more impact on the game,” he says.

Goalkeeper Jeff Attinella has arguably the hardest role of any of the replacement players as he tries to fill in for Nick Rimando.

“Luckily this time I was lucky enough to know when I was going to get called on, cause everyone had a pretty good feeling Nick was going to make the team," Attinella says. "But, for those other situations you just keep training hard and when your number is called you just got to try and do your best to step up.”

RSL Goalkeeper Jeff Antinella, right, runs through drills
Credit Brian Grimmett

Before the players left for the World Cup, RSL started off the season with a 10-game unbeaten streak. It was one of the longest in MLS history, but without their stars they’ve managed to only win one game, while losing two of their last three. Attinella says he’s not panicking about the recent results.

“We knew that we were going to lose eventually," he says. "Unfortunately, it happened in Seattle and, you know, the soccer gods haven’t really been in our favor lately. We know that every team goes through a stretch like that. It was great to start the season off undefeated but, you know it is what it is and it’s time to start a new streak.”

Veteran RSL defender Nat Borchers says while they could always play better, the team isn’t using the absences as an excuse.

“You know, I think when you don’t have guys like Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, and Àlvaro Saborìo, you know, you’re definitely not going to be as sharp as normally you would, because those guys are national team caliber players for sure. But, I think we’ve adjusted quite well,” Borchers says.

Summertime Blues

With its summer schedule Major League Soccer is unique among most of the world’s top professional soccer divisions. The others tend to play between September and May.  That allows their players time off during the summer when most internationally scheduled games and events take place. Without a shift in the MLS schedule, conflicts like the one RSL is facing this year will continue.  And MLS Officials have repeatedly said they don’t plan on making that shift any time soon. As for what RSL coach Jeff Cassar would like to see happen, he says that decision is above his pay grade.

Real Salt Lake Head Coach Jeff Cassar overlooks practice
Credit Brian Grimmett

“I’m sure there are a lot of smart people that are working with our league and they’re going to come up with a solution or keep it the same," Cassar says. "You know, it’s about selling tickets. You know, and it’s important that the fans are not sitting in 10-degree weather, either. I’m sure they’ll come to a good decision.”

RSL isn’t the only team impacted by the scheduling conflicts either. There are 22 players from 12 MLS teams that will be participating in the World Cup. And while Beckerman and Rimando will return to the team after the tournament, they will be without Saborio for even longer because of an injury he suffered while training with the Costa Rican national team. Cassar says it’s been somewhat of a perfect storm against the team, but for now, they’re trying their best to focus on the future.

“The summer time is a grind no matter what. Whether it’s injuries, whether it’s call ups to the national team, whether it’s the heat, the travel, it’s a grind in those summer months and you just got to power through it and come through in the end.”

Cassar also says as much as the team misses their star players, they’re mostly just happy for their teammates and looking forward to cheering them on to victory.